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Getting Acquainted with Russian Bells and Ringers

by Laura Dickerson

A complicated series of exchanges in the 1930s led to the bells of the St Daniel monastery in Moscow being installed at Lowell House at Harvard (then) College. In the 1980s, after the monastery was returned to its original pre-Soviet religious function, negotiations began to return the bells. The ultimate outcome was that a new set of Russian bells were cast for Harvard and the original ones returned to Moscow.

During the time leading up to the removal of the old bells and the arrival of the new ones, there was a lot of press coverage by the Boston Globe and other media outlets. In a feeling of bellringer solidarity, the Boston Change Ringers got in touch with the folks at Lowell House, who welcomed the overture. Three Russian bellringers were in Boston supervising the elaborate preparations, and eventually an outing was organized bringing them to Old North to see and hear our bells and have a handling lesson. Hierodeacon Roman Ogryzkov, head bellringer at the monastery, Konstantin Mishurovsky, curator of the Museum of Bells at Izmailovo and bellringer at the Moscow Kremlin, and Igor Konovalov, Patriarchal bellringer at the Moscow Kremlin and chairman of the Russian Society of Church Bell Ringers came accompanied by their translator Alex and by Ben Rapoport of the Lowell House group. They took lots of pictures, enjoyed watching the bells during ringing, admired the bell model (Konstantin is planning to order one from Sherbourne Teaching Aids to display in the museum), and pulled very straight backstrokes.

I was amused to learn that although the technique for ringing Russian church bells is very different (somewhat like chiming, with the bells hung dead), the most common correction given to beginners is “Don't pull so hard.” The cables attached to the clappers apparently also need a light touch, for the most part. We can't speak from experience, because on our return visits the tower was still considered a construction site and we were not allowed up.

It was entertaining to see Father Roman, dressed as usual in his somber black cassock, wearing a bright red hard hat when he went up to ring for us. We were shown pictures of the casting of the new bells, given a lot of historical information, and were shown parts of a Soviet documentary film about various nearly-defunct folk arts. This movie is one of the few sources of documentation for the old styles of ringing, aside from some notes and the memories of very old people. The Soviet suppression of religion did not quite kill off the ringing tradition in Russia, but it came frighteningly close. It is a relief to know that revivals of both ringing and casting bells are well under way.

More information can be found at the web site: http://www.danilovbells.com/bellsonrussia/coming/

Posted Sep 15, 2008

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